South Korea’s Itaewon, a multicultural hub hit with tragedy

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SEOUL, South Korea –


Itaewon, the neighbourhood the place at the least 153 folks have been killed in a Halloween crowd surge, is Seoul’s most cosmopolitan district, a place the place kebab stands and BBQ joints are as huge a draw because the pulsing evening golf equipment and classy bars.


Wedged between two of town’s largest parks and the War Memorial of Korea museum, Itaewon has lengthy been common amongst overseas residents and vacationers thanks largely to a main U.S. navy base that was as soon as close by. The space’s nightlife is generally centered on one essential street.


In current years, the times round Halloween have seen Itaewon’s energetic streets crammed with partygoers — expat and Korean alike — dressed up in vacation costumes. Those festivities continued even throughout the pandemic, which quickly dampened Itaewon’s nightlife after a number of circumstances have been traced to the world’s nightclubs and different venues.


Officials imagine that tens of 1000’s of revelers flocked to Itaewon on Saturday, in one of many largest gatherings for the reason that nation eliminated most of its COVID-19 restrictions in current months. Witnesses say the streets have been so densely clogged with folks and slow-moving automobiles that it was virtually not possible for emergency staff and ambulances to reach in time, leaving them helpless to stop the state of affairs from growing into the nation’s worst catastrophe in years.


On Saturday evening, emergency staff have been seen speeding to hold the injured and lifeless out in stretchers as ambulances lined up within the streets and a chaotic crowd fled the world. Paramedics and pedestrians frantically carried out CPR on folks within the streets close to rows of lifeless our bodies saved underneath blue blankets.


Park Ji-won, who runs a Middle Eastern restaurant throughout the road from Hamilton Hotel, mentioned he noticed emergency staff deliver out folks in stretchers among the many big throngs of crowds as he closed his restaurant round 11 p.m. He had no thought what simply occurred.


“I simply presumed a struggle broke out — in my 10-plus years of doing enterprise right here, I solely noticed ambulances when folks acquired assaulted or when there have been fires,” Park mentioned.


He mentioned he was “extraordinarily shocked” when he acquired dwelling and watched the information, which was when the loss of life toll was at a dozen. “But then the loss of life toll saved rising till it turned 151,” he mentioned.


Park mentioned Itaewon all the time had massive Halloween crowds, even throughout raging COVID-19 infections final 12 months. He mentioned store house owners like him often keep away from the slender alley beside Hamilton Hotel throughout vacation festivities, as a result of “when you go there, you can’t transfer or get out.”


For some folks, it was the distinction between the usually energetic, enjoyable neighbourhood and the mass loss of life that was most placing.


“People have been carrying Halloween costumes so the scene was so unrealistic,” mentioned an official at an Itaewon tourism group who rushed to the scene to attempt to assist. She requested anonymity due to the delicate nature of the incident.


While there’s not widespread Western-style trick-or-treat actions in South Korea, Halloween-themed events and occasions have turn out to be progressively common amongst younger South Koreans, and Itaewon is the nation’s hottest spot for such occasions, the place bars, golf equipment and eating places maintain costume competitions.


Itaewon’s worldwide character was formed by its proximity to a U.S. navy garrison close by. The space remains to be dwelling to eating places, bars and different companies catering to the American group in Seoul.


The Yongsan Garrison, which served because the headquarters for the U.S. Forces Korea and the United Nations Command till 2017, is lower than a mile away from Itaewon. The U.S. forces have since relocated their South Korean headquarters to Pyeongtaek, a metropolis 70 kilometres (45 miles) south of Seoul, leaving solely a small contingent in Yongsan whereas starting at hand over the land to the South Korean authorities.


Even after dropping most of its American navy prospects, Itaewon has remained a main attraction for each South Koreans and overseas guests, who’re drawn to the district’s buzzing and boozy nightlife in addition to its worldwide aptitude. Restaurants serving American barbecue and Middle Eastern kebabs sit alongside Irish pubs and conventional Japanese-style bars.


“The Itaewon group has opened its arms to us for a few years and is a part of the explanation our Alliance is so robust,” U.S. Forces Korea, which instructions the practically 30,000 American navy personnel within the nation, mentioned in an internet assertion, written in English and Korean. ” During this time of grief, we might be there for you simply as you’ve gotten been there for us.”


The epicenter of the catastrophe gave the impression to be on a cramped, sloping alley operating alongside the western facet of the Hamilton Hotel, the place some witnesses say folks fell and toppled over each other like “dominoes.” The brick resort and its adjoining buying middle are a well-known landmark within the space.


The lane would have left these in search of shelter with few choices. One facet is occupied by the principally stable wall of the resort. The different is lined with a handful of small storefronts, together with bars, a small retail store and a department of the Emart24 comfort retailer chain.


The alley itself is on an incline that results in one of many entrances to the busy Itaewon subway station, making it tougher for revelers to take care of their footing as the group surged. The block-long alley hyperlinks the primary street with one other slender strip packed with bars and classy eating places.


One witness advised native TV station YTN that he noticed each foreigners and Koreans who’d been killed, and appeared amazed because the neighbourhood crammed with police automobiles and ambulances making an attempt to assist the injured and dying.


“It was like an abyss,” the person, who gave his identify as Hwang Min-hyuk, mentioned.


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Schreck reported from Bangkok.

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